The Tragedy of Gossip

May 1, 2022 / Catherina Chowdhury

Gossip isn’t the niche occupation of mean girls with burn books and designated Wednesday wardrobes — it’s an integral part of human behavior. 

I imagine the people who talk about me in a dream. Everyone who has ever not smiled back at me or outright told me that  they do not like me are all gathered at a round table. Under the dim lights of a seedy basement that evokes poker and cigars, they compare notes. One guy jokes about my thinning hairline and the rest laugh. Another points out my very obvious daddy issues and the crowd nods thoughtfully in agreement. Together, they discuss all the worst possible things about me and confirm all my worst thoughts about myself.

Read into that what you will.

The spring of my sophomore year of high school, I found myself caught in the throes of a bad rumor – the kind that convinces you to wash down a medicine cabinet with a bottle of apple juice and hope for the worst. The rumor was true.  It was about the objectively (not subjectively) worst thing that ever happened to me, and the only person that I had told up to that point was my then best friend. She told other people, who told other people, who (I can’t prove it but highly suspect) told other people. Even at the time, I remember thinking about how comically high-school it all was: the drama, the heartbreak. Unfortunately, being self-aware of the silliness did not make the hurt any less real. I felt all the obvious things: naked, vulnerable, betrayed, but more than anything, I was confused. I spent most of the next summer laying on the mattress of my (now childhood) bedroom, staring at the ceiling and asking myself how my friends could be so mean. Why would she tell people? Why would those people tell people?

I would never do that, I thought, unrealistically. From then on, I vowed to be the nice girl. I would never have anything bad to say about anyone, and I would certainly never voice those thoughts if I did. I tried so hard for so long to live by those rules. Gossip, however, is inevitable.  

Last week, my friend FaceTimed me on her way to campus to tell me that our mutual friend is back together with her boyfriendand she only gives the relationship until the end of the year, max. I got coffee with another friend I hadn’t seen in months, and together, we pooled our superior Freudian sensibilities and decided that his mom is a closeted lesbian. “She’s obsessed with finger guns.” His words, not mine. While my roommates were cooking dinner, I told them every detail of the hurt that my last situationship left me with, and they agreed that I was prettier than him anyway.

I don’t set aside time in my day to gossip, it just happens. At 21 years old, I have completely betrayed the rules that 16-year-old me made for myself. I do what ruined me: I gossip. Often. As much as I live in fear of what other people are saying about me behind my back, I spend most of my conversational bandwidth talking about other people, and I know that I’m not the only one. I don’t think I speak from a place of malignant evil when I gossip. In fact, a majority of what I say leans positive or neutral, but I still find myself searching for a justification that absolves me of all guilt.

I tell myself that at its very core, gossip is just talking about other people while they’re not in the same room. I say that even thousands of years ago, early humans used gossip to warn others of their neighbor’s misfortune. (Don’t eat those berries, Sam ate those berries and died.) I remind myself that the word gossip stems from “godparent” in Old English, and it wasn’t even considered wrong at all until it was associated with women in the 16th century. I tell myself that it’s only seen as negative because of its link to women, and that gossiping without guilt is a feminist reclamation of its innocence. Still, none of my self-assurances solve my problem. I don’t feel guilty for gossiping because society decided it was wrong, I feel guilty for gossiping because I decided it was wrong. Regardless of whether I gossip as a feminist or as a Freudian, my words have the power to unintentionally hurt someone, and that terrifies me.

Gossip lacks the malice that I’d imagined the people from my high school acted with. It lacks the cut-and-dry simplicity of teen movies and Disney Channel shows, too. There were supposed to be nice people who don’t gossip and mean people who do, and it was supposed to be easy to tell them apart, but that isn’t true. Gossip isn’t the niche occupation of mean girls with burn books and designated Wednesday wardrobes, it’s an integral human behavior. Everyone I know is a nice person, and everyone I know gossips.

Someone is bound to hurt someone else with their words, and no justice will come of it. I could spend forever hating gossip and blaming everyone who participated in that stupid rumor for the years I spent feeling insecure in my friendships and at school, and maybe I’d be correct to, but it doesn’t matter. As badly as I want to believe that I am nothing like the people that hurt me, that’s not entirely true, either. I would have spread it too. It was hot gossip, I get it. The tragedy of gossip is that it always feels bigger when it’s about us.

I’ve created a new and more realistic set of rules for my gossip. I don’t say the really mean things, I guard my friends' secrets, my intention is  never to humiliate, and anything I tell my mom doesn’t count. I’ve never been one for religion, but I’ve crafted my own commandments. I know it’s not foolproof, and I know that I’ll still fail someone else’s litmus test. I know that I have and will continue to hurt people unintentionally. The most I can hope for is that I’ll have the courage to apologize.

Maybe that’s the most we can all hope to do. ■

By: Catherina Chowdhury

Photography: Ale De La Fuente

Videography: Alec Martinez

Layout: Ava Darvish

Stylist: Lauren Caldwell

Lily Cartagena

Ophelia Brown & Lucy Hwang

View the full spread as it appeared in Issue No. 18 here.
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